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Beyond the Syllabus: Applying to a competitive university

1st April 2022

If you want to go to a competitive university, doing well in your school subjects is essential but sometimes not enough. Universities are looking for students who are not only passionate about their chosen subject but who can also demonstrate independent learning skills.  

What does going beyond the school syllabus actually involve?  

Look for things that will broaden your knowledge and deepen your enthusiasm for a chosen subject. Attend exhibitions or plays, listen to podcasts or online lectures, read articles and books, take a short course, create a piece of computer code or make a film –the list is almost limitless. 

We have compiled a list of resources below to get you started. These will give you opportunities to explore subjects more deeplyUniversities want to see how you think, grapple with new concepts and challenge yourself. They are looking for genuine interest in a subject and want to see evidence of this in your personal statement.  

Getting started 

  • FutureSmart Essentials. If your school has signed up for FuturesmartEssentials, our information service for schools, go to our Beyond the Syllabus resources section for plenty of subject-focused activities to try. 

  • University websitesThe University of Oxford and The University of Cambridge provide extensive lists of general and subject-specific resources. You don’t need to apply to Oxford or Cambridge to use these. 

  • Public lectures. A number of universities host online and in-person public lectures, which anyone can attend. The University of Edinburgh have free online lectures every year and is a good place to start. You can find others by looking at individual departments on university websites. Gresham College has been providing free lectures within the City of London for over 400 years!  

  • Quick study booksThe Very Short Introductions series of books from Oxford University Press provide overviews on hundreds of topics. These are useful if you want to study a subject that is new to you, or if you want to delve more deeply into a specific area. 

  • Competitions. Entering a competition can embed your learning and develop your critical thinking skills; winning a prize can demonstrate your high abilities. The Student Room is a good place to search for competitions or other challenges across a wide range of subjects.  

  • Short online courses. Also known as MOOCs (Massive Online Open Course). Provided by universities and other learning providers from around the world, courses are usually free and typically take between 2-4 hours a week to complete. Check out Futurelearn and Coursera. 

  • Summer schools and taster days. University taster days and summer schools will provide deeper learning opportunities. Have a look at  Uni Taster DaysSpaceCareers and Intobiology 

  • Work experience. Gaining relevant work experience can also give you a different perspective on your subject and is essential for applications to many vocational degree courses. Look for virtual work experience on Spring Pod and Student Ladder for in-person formal schemes.   

What are the benefits? 

  • Develop key skills. You can develop the ability to think critically, consider information from multiple angles and work independently - universities look for evidence of these skills on your personal statement, in an interview or in other admissions tests. 

  • Choose the right subject. Extra reading, listening to podcasts and entering an essay competition can help you to find out if you are really enthusiastic about a subject or not. 

  • Provide evidence for your personal statementUniversities are looking for evidence of your academic interests beyond your schoolwork to demonstrate how you respond to new ideas, your capacity for self-study, and that you are serious about your subject. 

Getting the most from wider learning experiences 

  • Follow your interests. Studying for a degree because you think it will look good on your CV may be difficult to sustain for three years or more. 

  • Think critically and ask questions. Don’t blindly accept arguments that you come across, instead try to challenge them and think of counterexamples.  

  • Pause and reflect. When you are listening to a podcast or reading an article, pause and consider, how much of the information is fact or opinion? What is your own opinion? Make some notes to record your reflections. 

  • Find connections. Look for comparisons and contrasts between some of the different areas you explore – you might come up with unique ideas of your own.  

  • Share and discuss. This can be with friends, parents or teachers and will support your ability to articulate your ideas and opinions. It will be excellent practice for university interviews!